Remembering missing Vietnam veteran & wife nearly 50 years after crash

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COLORADO SPRINGS — The lives of Colonel Anthony and Mary Giannangeli were honored during a dual funeral service Friday around noon at the Air Force Academy Cemetery.

The couple’s six surviving children were each presented with an American flag and a missing man formation flyover of F-16s from the 310th Fighter Squadron, Luke AFB, Ariz.

“I don’t think we knew the extent of how much our dad was flying over there and the dangerous missions,” Dennis Giannangeli said.

Col Anthony Giannangeli was one of five electronic warfare aircrew who went missing on Easter Sunday, April 2, 1972, when their aircraft an RB-66C Destroyer (tail number 54-0466, call sign “Bat 21”) took enemy fire and crashed in Vietnam.

“It’s a day I’ll never forget, I can close my eyes and still see it all,” Vietnam Veteran William Jankowski said. “All of a sudden I saw it end in an explosion in the sky. So I turned my airplane and started heading to it. Then I just saw this RB-66 a ball of flame coming out of the sky just circulating it went into the clouds and a plume of black smoke came up.”

The mission was to support the thousands of troops on the ground as they were trying to fend off the enemy invasion in south Vietnam.

“It was our job and it was what our country told us to do,” Jankowski added.

The aircraft’s lone survivor, now deceased, reported one other airman survived the initial blast. At the time, Jankowski was communicating with the BAT 21 Bravo, which was one of the two survivors as he parachuted down.

“He kept saying he could see me and I’m looking at the ground and going that he’s got way better eyes than I do and finally he said, ‘I could see you’ and so I looked up and there he was coming down in the chute,” Jankowski described. “He had landed in the middle of where the invasion was.”

The rescue efforts lasted 18 days and in the process, 11 more men were killed.

“There are indications that if any of the locals had found any kind of wreckage like that the medal itself would have had value and they were so poor there, they would have sold anything that they would have found,” Historical Writer and Veteran Darrel Whitcomb said.

“From what I saw with the airplane burning and as much as it was on fire and especially the electronic warfare officers like Anthony as they were in the back of the airplane, my opinion is that nobody else got out of the airplane,” Jankowski said.

Col Giannangeli wife Mary Louise never remarried and died July 7, 2020, of Alzheimer’s. She devoted her life to raising her children. She also attended the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs while raising her children. She earned her B.A. in history and taught history and English as a Second Language at D-11 Schools from 1989-2007.

“She wanted to have closure too, she wanted to our dad come back while we were alive,” Dennis Giannangeli said. “She had hoped all the time for that in the back of her mind, she never had that chance and so I think it was good that this happened today.”

A military wife now reunited with her high school sweetheart. Her family described her strength and courage as the majestic Pikes Peak.

“No matter if there were clouds on it, there was a haze on it, rain on it, snow on it… she was going to wear it well,” Dennis Giannangeli said. “Mom would look good in anything and take anything.”

Col Giannangeli is memorialized on the Courts of the Missing at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.

There are 1600 U.S. troops are unaccounted for from the Vietnam War, according to Whitcomb. Three books and a movie were made about Col Giannangeli and his crew’s final moments and the rescue efforts. Whitcomb wrote the book, The Rescue of BAT21. He also assisted in the rescue and was in attendance at the funeral Friday.

“I wanted to explain to them [families] what happened that day so at least they knew what the fate was of their young men that were flying those missions,” Whitcomb said. “It was an important mission because we were leaving the war, none of us wanted to be the last guy lost, the last one left behind so when rescues would occur we would all pitch in and do everything we could to get our guys out, it was apart of what we were and it was a moral imperative that we do that.”

The survivor of the surface-to-air missile (SAM) reported it had exploded below and behind the aircraft. The other five crew members are believed to have died in the incident and their remains were not recovered either.

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